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The Case of the Disappearing Autograph

It was toward the end of the 2006 baseball season when I started to tag along with a friend who was a veteran of tracking athletes down at team hotels to get autographs. During that first trip out I felt the anticipation, the rush, the heartbreak that all graphers know. I was hooked. After venturing out a handful of times, I had collected an armful of new treasures and started to pick up tricks of the trade from observing the other collectors. But there was one lesson I came upon myself, not long after my starter kit of a half-dozen baseballs were all inked.

Bobby Abreu autographed baseball

Will this ball still be considered "autographed" in ten years?

Collecting autographs can get expensive. Fast.

Standing in an aisle of my local Modell’s, I turned the crystal cube containing the Rawlings Official Major League Baseball (ROMLB) over in my hands. The price tag read $12.99. My face read disappointment. I knew I would need a ton of balls to take advantage of an 81-game home schedule and several special events featuring Red Sox players during the year. Then my eyes tracked down a shelf to a mesh black bag containing a dozen baseballs. Rawlings Official League—a synthetic leather replica of the real deal. They averaged out to fewer than three bucks a piece, less than a quarter the price of the genuine article. Figuring I wasn’t selling the balls and looking nearly identical when displayed, no one would know the difference. Why go broke? I’d still pick up a couple ROMLBs in case I encountered a superstar. But was a second-tier veteran or an unproven rookie like Dustin Pedroia (who was hitting .182 at the time) worth placing a $13 bet? Not when I was saving for a house and a ring. Anyway, they were white baseballs with red laces. What could go wrong?

Little did I know it would be a gamble that wouldn’t pay off.

I was happy with the results of a full season of graphing baseball, adding stars like Alex Rodriguez and Matt Holliday to my collection, as well as several Red Sox players (including that Pedroia fella who actually turned out to be pretty good). Then a funny thing happened. After another long New England winter, spring finally sprung. My girlfriend (who would become Mrs. Raymond two years later) and I bought a place of our own and I got to work decorating my new man cave. There was a perfect mantle running the length of one wall where I would display my signed baseball collection. I couldn’t wait to dig them out. When I did, I nearly screamed.

Several of my autographs had begun to vanish.

The Schilling. The Abreu. The Reggie Jackson (a Nike ball stamped “Genuine Leather” which was complete bull—or actually, not complete bull). The Henry, Werner and Lucchino. THE PEDROIA!

They were fading, bleeding. I think I saw a tear rolling off The Buchholz. It was a crime scene, and the only guilty party was me.

Learn from my mistake. Always use a ROMLB. If the cost is prohibitive, choose lesser expensive items like photos and cards, or start a team ball. I wish I did.

One of the exciting things about this hobby is the thought that someday you can entertain your kids with the stories and items in your collection. Let’s hope mine have a good imagination.

About the author: is the founder of Autograph University. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and two sons. Connect with him on Twitter at @mattraymond.

31 comments… add one

  • erin June 23, 2011, 11:24 am

    The title was deceiving, I was reminded of a time a ball was” replaced”.

  • Matt Raymond June 23, 2011, 11:51 am

    Funny — I still have that replacement ball on display.

  • Laura June 24, 2011, 6:46 am

    I know exactly what you are talking about. The same thing happened to me. Unfortunately before I knew better I thought the exact same way you did. Now it seems like I spent all that time and effort, and I have nothing to show for it. Most of mine haven’t really faded, but the bleeding is terrible, and it is very sad to see such a site. Now I try to collect mostly 8x10photos fot 2 reasons. ! They are a LOT cheaper and if they have a bad auto you could figure out who it is from the picture. Maybe they are not as valuable, but I just can’t afford to put that much money into it.

  • Matt Raymond June 24, 2011, 7:54 am

    Thanks for the comment Laura. I typically go with 8x10s for the same reasons that you stated. They’re also more appropriate for personalizations (which I prefer). Hopefully we can help a new collector avoid the shock and disappointment we both experienced.

  • Tom Lana March 16, 2012, 4:22 pm

    Matt,

    I’m new to your website and I love it! I had to laugh at your ‘The Case of the Disappearing Autograph’ story but could also feel your pain. I’m a single signed ball kind of a guy and have a run of Cincinnati Reds team signed balls since 1998. When my two sons were younger (late 90’s – early 00’s) we would spend LOTS of time at the ballpark both before and after games. I noticed that most of the autograph ‘hounds’ would get baseball cards, 8 X 10’s, etc. signed and for what they want for a pack of cards now, I though it would be cheaper to just work on a team ball (we only work on Reds team balls). We would also carry around a few clean, new ROMLB balls to try and get ‘all stars’ and/or future HOFers to sign them – with the sweet spot of course being the designation of the INK. BTW, I haven’t read too many of your stories yet but am sure you recommend keeping them in zip-lock baggies during the ‘hunt’…this obviously keeps the natural oils (at least your own) and other ‘foreign’ substances off your ball. Unfortunately it’s hard to keep tabs on your favorite athletes’ cleanliness and it’s affect on your baseball. Over the years I have perfected the ‘two finger stitch grip’ needed to get my fingers, etc. off the leather while stretched out, leaning in for an autograph and sometimes even clutching one of my todler sons with my other arm – those were the days. We currently have 300+ single signed baseballs most of which are new ROMLB balls some are BP balls that we would use for the ‘non-star’ players – you have to admit that not all MLB players are NEW ROMLB worthy. My point of this is that I’m convinced that not all ROMLB cowhide is the same just like not all human beings are the same. I ALWAYS use blue, ballpoint ink – preferably BIC.

    As you probably know first hand or have been told over the years that Ken Griffey Jr. is a VERY tough autograph to obtain. We had some success while he was here in Cincinnati (my two sons and myself are big Griffey fans) and were able to get his autograph 6-7 times (never inside the ball park). I basically broke down and bought an Upperdeck Authenticated Griffey Jr. signed ball due to the fact that he is not too willing to sign the sweetspot of a baseball. Being the team signed baseball fans we are, I turned one of our single signed Griffety Jr. baseballs (non sweetspot signed) into our 2001 Cincinnati Reds team signed ball. Well, that ball just happens to be our only team signed ball (13 balls total) that has almost completely faded (this baseball has been stored in complete darkness too). All 25-30 signatures were signed with blue ballpoint ink and I would almost guarantee that most were signed with the same pen. The strange thing is that the first signature on the ball – the Griffey Jr. – is still 100% bright, blue ink. Yes, this ball is a ROMLB ball – strangely enough.

    We have a Frank Robinson sweetspot signed ball that has bled into the leather and has become very blurry – no fading though but still not a “nice” ball anymore. My point is that we can make sure we buy the RIGHT baseballs (ROMLB), take some precautions prior to getting inked, use blue ballpoint pens, DO NOT use black or blue Sharpies on baseballs and BY ALL MEANS keep them out of daylight as much as possible – we do all these things properly but we cannot control what affects (if any) the leather will have on the absorption/fading of our precious signed baseballs…

    Tom Lana
    (w/ Tristan & Trey contributing to the ‘hounding’)
    Cincinnati, Ohio

  • Matt Raymond March 20, 2012, 9:56 pm

    Hi Tom (and Tristan and Trey), fantastic advice and a great story–thanks for sharing! To your point, I do keep my baseballs in sandwich bags when I’m out in the field. Still nothing quite like a signed baseball but I’ve found myself gravitating away from them toward photos because they are easier to store and don’t encounter the issues you describe.

    Cheers.
    Matt

  • Roland April 11, 2013, 9:52 pm

    Is there anyway to prevent the bleed/fade? I have s dexter fowler ball that’s part of my sins budding collection and I hope to protect its auto integrity.

  • Matt Raymond April 21, 2013, 8:43 pm

    Hi Roland, I’m not aware of any reliable method from keeping the signature from fading from a synthetic ball. Best to take a nice photo of the ball as soon as possoble and you’ll also have something to remind you and your son of the memory.

  • Paula April 11, 2013, 10:25 pm

    Matt,

    I learned real fast about authentic balls vs regular ones early in my hobby. I even a 500 game sellout ball I started that already fading, much to my disappointment. No matter how good the pen or sharpie, or most expensive case you display it in; it will STILL FADE :(
    I have heard that “rough up” the cheap balls first. I’m still not sure the of the method, sandpaper? your pants? Anyone else know about this?

    Great story!

    Paula

  • Matt Raymond April 21, 2013, 8:38 pm

    Thanks Paula. I haven’t heard of roughing the ball up, though I would hesitate to put any abrasive near a ball I wanted to get signed. Best just to stick with a ROMLB.

  • Liam June 7, 2013, 4:27 pm

    my friend doesn’t believe u

  • JA Goetz July 26, 2013, 9:21 pm

    What about those Trump baseballs or those Rawlings ROLB1 balls? Has anyone ever used those for autographs? Or the Rawlings Sigature Series?

  • Maggie August 13, 2013, 11:38 pm

    I feel your pain, Matt. I was “lucky” enough to have a collector give me the advice on the balls/pens, though, before I had many of the cheaper balls signed. I have a few team balls signed by Braves or minor leaguers that are not ROMLB, signed in Sharpie, or a combination of both. So far, most haven’t faded (the only one- a Braves logo ball signed in Black Sharpie by Tommy Hanson, who has been terrible of late), but I know they will in time despite them being stored in completely dark locations, etc. Though I did get Mike Minor- with the proper kind of pen- on an International League Official Baseball that was game used, but didn’t show a lot of use (all I had on me as I wasn’t expecting to get him). That one is almost completely faded and he’s now pretty hard to get. I wish I could go back and get him again on a ROMLB as he has turned into one of the aces on the Braves’ staff. Thanks for your tips- hopefully it will help others new to the hobby from making the mistakes we all have made at one point.

  • Matt Raymond September 5, 2013, 11:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience/pain with us. I wish I had a time machine as well :)

  • brian January 4, 2014, 11:44 pm

    I learned that lesson the hard way as well. However, if you really just want to have a cheap ball to have signed, the rawlings “little league” baseballs work well if you use a blue bic ballpoint..of course, the little league is lame and reduces the value, but I have several signed in 2003 and 2004 that still look perfect, including some guys on the 2004 sarasota red sox named jon lester, jonathan papelbon, and hanley ramirez

  • Matt Raymond January 5, 2014, 7:45 pm

    Great tip!

  • Ryan April 29, 2014, 9:57 pm

    Hi Matt. I have loved your website for many years and I have a question. I graph the California league and always get baseballs from the batting practices. I usually get the top prospects on cards and ROMLB’s but sometimes I have nothing to get for the smaller guys. I was thinking about possibly using batting practice balls. Are they still okay to get signed even though they have the “China” stamp on them? Do you have any other ideas of what to get their autographs on without wasting ROMLBs? Thank you.

  • Matt Raymond April 29, 2014, 10:24 pm

    Hi Ryan, thanks for the question. I think using the batting practice balls is risky. Maybe worth a try on a couple guys and monitor the signature over the course of the year. If you don’t have cards or photos, I suggest checking out the draft pick/prospect cards over at http://theautographcard.com. They do a nice job.

    Matt

  • frontrowesports May 6, 2014, 12:31 am

    I feel I am late to the party on the comments here but I just found this discussion and wanted to share some seasoned autograph collecting insight. Agreed that “fake” baseballs are a terrible item to have signed and that Official Rawlings MLB (ROMLB) balls are the best. But what hasn’t really been addressed is why… the “fake” balls are synthetic, man-made material and the official balls are real leather. Real leather holds ink way better than slick synthetic material. Therein lies a solution in the form of a cheaper ball. Rawlings also makes a “fake” ball that has a FULLY GENUINE LEATHER cover… they are designated as ROMLB-1, if I’m not mistaken, and are available at Walmart (and other retailers) at a price of about $22-28 per dozen (wrapped in sleeves and in a net bag). Dicks Sporting Goods also sells these balls individually for about $4-5 (discounted for the more you buy). While they do have the “CHINA” stamp on the end of one of the sewn loops near the sweet spot, they hold a signature just as well as a ROMLB ball and are more budget friendly for lesser stars of our beloved sport.

    When I attend a game or signing event, I usually carry a dozen of these “lesser” baseballs and 2-4 “real” baseballs and pick and choose based on the level of talent signing.

    Hope this helps! :)
    – Chris

  • Matt Raymond May 9, 2014, 9:44 am

    Great advice Chris – thanks for sharing this alternative with us. Anyone else have luck with the ROMLB-1?

  • Clay August 31, 2014, 9:12 pm

    I went to a Corpus Christi Hooks game this season hoping to get a few top prospects to sign, but I wasn’t willing to pay for ROMLB for unproven players, so I bought a dozen of the ROMLB-1 for about as much as 4 ROMLBs. The ROMLB-1 ball isn’t as well put together, and while it genuine leather, it feels more rubbery than the ROMLBs. I tried using sandpaper on a couple of the balls to rough up the leather, but I don’t think it did that much. The autographs look good right now, but there hasn’t been a lot of time for them to fade yet. I hope they hold up well cause there are a few players, like Mark Appel, Joey Gallo, and Colin Moran, who could turn out to be stars in the future who I had sign the ROMLB-1s

  • Matt Raymond September 2, 2014, 9:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing Clay – make sure to give us an update in a few months to let us know how they hold up.

  • Scott July 18, 2014, 6:17 pm

    I feel your pain. The other day I discovered that Johnny Pesky’s signature on a rubber Red Sox Spring Training ball that I got a few years ago blurred on me. It isn’t too bad, but if I’d known that, then I definitely would’ve sprung for the ROMLB.

  • Sam Midgette December 25, 2014, 5:50 pm

    Hey Matt, i Mainly do cards but i have plenty of Photos and signed balls. ROMLB’s are amazing but ROLB1 work Great also!! I personally think that the rolb have a ” bolder” look from the auto. But keep an eye out my dad and I picked up 14 ROMLBs for buy on get one free on black friday at sports authority

  • Matt Raymond January 8, 2015, 9:50 pm

    Sweet deal!

  • Joe March 2, 2015, 12:35 am

    Matt.
    The other day I cleaned out my safe to move several of my autographed ROMLB’s into a display case I just purchased. I noticed that some of the autographs are already beginning to fade! A couple are even starting to look as though they are smeared and I can’t figure out what could have happened. I did all the research ahead of time, used good blue ink pens, stored them in the acylic cubes, I even had a bag of medium in the safe to take care of any residual humidity from the leather balls. These autographs are 8-10 months old and were in perfect condition when I placed them in the safe. The troubling concern is out of the 15 balls, only 5 have been effected. Could you shed any light as to what could have possibly gone wrong?
    Or what I can do in the future to prevent this from happening again?
    Thank you.

  • Andrew Christensen April 7, 2015, 12:20 am

    is the Rawlings Official ROLB1X League real or a synthetic leather,I’m concerned about the autograph on this ball,Thanks Andy.

  • tim neighbors July 16, 2015, 6:09 pm

    My daughter and i have been collecting reds signatuers since 2010 .we collect single sighned on preferrable sweetspot .guess i was lucky in choosing the authentic mlb balls and blue ball point.we have 84 sweetspot ones four that ate not.we have such a great time at fan fest caravan or other times when we can get signatuers .i read how u go games on the road and gst signatuers at thier hotel.how do u know where they are staying and any tips on how to approach with most success .we are going st.loius m august would b great to catch players at hotel

  • Zachary June 17, 2016, 8:13 pm

    Hello! I just went to a autograph signing for Jason groome first round pick but I used a China ball and I have heard bad things about these in the past with fading and stuff it’s already basically in a case away from light what should I do to make the auto stay and not fade he has a promising future and want to keep this as fresh as possible to sell in the future.

  • undead June 24, 2016, 10:29 pm

    Reading all the horror stories I thought I’d add my tales. I’ve been collecting and rarely buying for almost 40 years and there is really no conclusive lesson. There are far too many variables. But be aware or beware that it’s dry before you put anything near it to avoid smudges. AND, be aware of how you plan on storing items. Years ago I bought huge collection at an estate sale but I knew exactly what I was getting into and got them cheap because of my knowledge. There were Al Pacino, Arnold, De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Travolta and many more that were hastily put into vinyl sleeves in binders and stored in the dark. A few years later the owner was mortified to discover that the vinyl took the sharpie ink right off the photos and stayed there. There was enough left to reposition them correctly after cutting the rest of the vinyl to mount. They’re good five footers, but any closer and the jig is up.

    I recently consigned all my personal items which were sharpie on 8x10s and ink on cards and paper. They did ok because of condition and names. A lot of actors and sport I got in person at conventions games, and later nightclubs. Buster Crabbe, Brooks Robinson Bobby Tompspon, Torre, Mookie, Pignataro, Berra etc.

    Here’s some of my success tips. With so much less writing due to email, Mont Blanc, Parker, Papermate, and even cheaper Staples, Office Max no name no frills, are now making great 1.0mm wide tip ballpoint pens and/or refills to fit any make with and without gel(which smears until dry) black or blue, which leave thick beefy signatures that won’t disappear anytime soon.

    I carry my favorite higher end pen all the time but I always carry a few cheapies with the wide tips too. I’ve given dozens away after comments about how nice they write, and a few times I was asked if I had anything else they could sign in return. Then I go to the good old US $20 $50, or $100 bill.

    Personally,I feel that on anything that is glossy, the best you can do is ink for the lifespan, but silver, black, or blue Sharpie are great on shiny, but bleed on paper and anti UV storage has to be polypropylene or polyethylene. Confused? Try this, for low cost or easily accessible people polyethylene is the way to go. It’s like a food baggie not crystal clear acid free sleeve so Ethel make me a sandwich when I order supplies. Then, I can simply use a tiny piece of double sided tape right to the wall and rotate every few months to enjoy the effort and cost I laid out to get it.

    For better signatures it’s polypropylene, which is crystal clear but needs a backing board becase they are delicate. The cost almost always evens out with toploaders unless you’re doing 27″x40″ posters where the weight adds greatly to the cost of shipping.

    In the end we need to let reality slip to the front and consider the basic questions. Have I invested so much that it’s going to send my kids throught college? My kids may be into it now and we want to see the fruits of labor, and not hide them away, so is this item going to be relevant or interesting in 50 years to your great, great, grandchildren?
    If no got with toploaders or sleeves and enjoy them as long as you can.

    I also have some early tobacco cards that I would love to trim for better presentation but I know that is considered a sin so they’ll stay in the closet until I die.

    By the way, I stumbled here because I have some Roger Maris, Stan Musial, Casey Stengel, Mickey Mantle and a few other signed stills with no ink left. I heard there are companies with credibilty that are beginning to restore faded ballpoint signatures, in essence tracing over the impressions where the ink has faded, much like painting over flaws on movie posters.

    And speaking of movie posters you can take a look at this one

    http://movieposters.ha.com/itm/horror/frankenstein-universal-1931-/a/613-29472.s?ic4=GalleryView-Thumbnail-071515

    The highlight of the description is: This poster has had extensive restoration. The original portion of the poster includes the image of the monster, the “FR” in Frankenstein and the portrait of Dwight Frye. The rest of the poster has been painted in. This does constitute a large section of the poster, however, it is interesting to observe that the majority of the poster is a white background. The restoration was expertly done by Carol Tincup. Now, that being pointed out, one has to keep in mind that this is the only half sheet that has ever turned up on this title so if you’re in the market for that format, this is the only one that is known to exist. As is we grade the poster in fair condition but has an “apparent” grade of Fine on paper. This was one of the cornerstone pieces in the Collection of Johnny Ramone. Johnny had always wanted an original poster from the 1931 release of Frankenstein and, with the addition of this half sheet to his collection, he achieved that goal. Fair on Paper. It SOLD for $25,300

    Fully restored muscle cars sell for several hundred thousand dollars. but I can’t I trim my $500 ’21 W551 Ruth to double the value because a few clowns with micrometers that charge me to rate my cards say it’s no good?

    Only in America folks, sorry for wasting your time while venting.

    Happy collecting

  • Ashkey January 17, 2017, 5:37 pm

    I have a golf cart and it how autographs on it but I cant tell who is who what it says how can I restore or read who on it please help . what can use to identify the signatures on it

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